My Most Precious Possessions (2)

Once I was back in my own house with my own family, in July 1975, my physical health improved. Since I couldn’t seek therapy for my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), I treated myself. I knew that I couldn’t bury my grisly memories. If I did, they’d come back to haunt me. I had to face them head on. So I forced myself to bring them into my conscious mind the hideous events I’d witnessed and participated in during all those years I was supporting army and Marine units on the battlefield. I relived the fall of Saigon with its unspeakable tragedies. I made myself remember the grim details about moments I still can’t talk about.

And I employed two coping mechanisms that eventually helped me come to terms with my past.

First, I wrote. I’d been writing stories since I was six years old, so writing down what had happened was natural for me. To describe the macabre episodes, I had to remember the gory details. It worked. I learned to manage my emotions. And all that writing ended up producing seventeen short stories and four novels now in print.

Second, I volunteered to take care of people worse off than I was. At the height of the AIDS crisis, I worked with men dying of the disease. Over a five-year period, I had seven patients. They were all gay; they all died. Then I worked with the homeless and finally spent seven years as a hospice volunteer, ministering to the dying. I learned that when I was focused on people who needed my help, my gruesome memories receded into the background. I learned that compassion heals.

My volunteer work had another benefit I wasn’t expecting. Caring for the dying moved me so deeply that I wrote a novel about a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. It was published in 2014 as No-Accounts.

More tomorrow.

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